Saturday, May 28, 2016

Birthday: "Men want a woman whom they can turn on and off like a light switch," declared the creator of James Bond.

Ian Fleming (1908-1964)

Scion of a prominent banking family, Ian Fleming was educated at Eton, leaving without a degree because of housemaster conflicts over his car, hair oil and womanizing; Sandhurst, where he left without a commission after getting a venereal disease; and a couple of German universities, where he hoped to use an acquired language proficiency to get on at the Foreign Office (he didn’t).

His mother (who, after his father died in World War I, had an affair with the sculptor Augustus John, producing a daughter), lobbied a friend at Reuters to take Fleming; after a middling career he bowed to her pressure to go into banking, which didn’t go very well; then stock brokerage, which didn’t go very well, either. Drinking, smoking and womanizing seemed to be Fleming’s towering strengths; in 1939 he started an affair with Ann Charteris, wife of the Baron O’Neill, while she was carrying on another affair with the press baron, Lord Rothermere.

Despite having no discernible qualifications for the job, Fleming was recruited to become the aide of the director of British Naval Intelligence, just in time for World War II. Here Fleming found his niche: he was a fixer, smoothing over problems his prickly boss caused; he was also inventive in the arts of deception.

After the war, Fleming became foreign editor for a British newspaper chain, and refused to marry the war-widowed Ann Charteris, though they continued their affair after she married her other lover, Lord Rothermere. They conceived two children; Lord Rothermere divorced her; she and Fleming- married in 1952- carried on having affairs with others throughout their marriage.

Some ideas from his wartime experience jogged Fleming to write Casino Royale- a spy thriller introducing a British agent called James Bond- in 1952. It was an inauspicious launch, The Writer’s Almanac notes:

The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, sold about 7,000 copies, and Fleming followed it with four more that sold less and less well. Critics said he was good at writing about places, but that was about it. Fleming had a newborn son at home, and he was disappointed that these books weren’t making more money to help support the family, so for his next Bond story he wrote the book specifically for the movies. He filled it with more psychopaths and beautiful women than usual. No one in the movie industry was interested at the time, but the novel From Russia, with Love (1957) became a huge international best-seller.

In 1959 Fleming left his day job and moved full-time to Jamaica, where he had lived on holiday since after the war. Though critics often savaged his work for its mix of sex, snobbery, sadism and chauvinism, his ability to pivot off postwar global issues and canny product placement combine for an irresistible blend of fantasy and reality. Among other talents, Fleming revealed Bond had the ability to cure “psycho-pathological maladies” through the “laying on of hands.” Goldfinger ends as Bond looks into Pussy’s “deep blue-violet eyes that were no longer hard … He bent and kissed them lightly. He said, ‘They told me you only liked women’. She said, ‘I never met a man before.’” Bond promises her “a course of TLC”, before she looks up at his “passionate, rather cruel mouth” and it comes “ruthlessly down on hers”.

The books took off anew after it was revealed that the new American President, John F. Kennedy, was a Bond fan. In 1961 Fleming sold the movie rights to Harry Saltzman. There followed a half-century movie franchise spanning seven actors, 26 films, and five billion dollars in ticket sales; a number of authors have carried on the Bond books as well). Fleming’s children’s book, Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang, was published after his death, at 56, in 1964.

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